Monday, May 20, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Blonde’ is Uneven, But Ana de Armas Stuns

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik

Stars: Ana de Armas, Lucy DeVito, Garret Dillahunt

Synopsis: A fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe.

At one point in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, audiences hear a voice separated from their body reveal what can be understood as the core of this film: “The soul does not always show in the face”. As Ana de Armas embodies Marilyn Monroe in this film, depicting her tortured soul, it’s here in this statement of juxtaposition that Dominik aims to get his point across to the very society he has critiqued across his career. Looking back at the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, Dominik begins by showing camera bulbs explode through flashes of smoke and light in awe of Monroe. As she flashes into the frame, surrounded by the screaming public that adored her persona, the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood presents itself. de Armas stunningly embodies Monroe to a jaw-dropping degree, adorned in the beautiful dresses and jewelry the star herself once wore. It’s a breathtaking sight to behold for the first time, so in a very distinct fashion, Dominik travels back to the childhood of Monroe, withholding the lead performance so many assuredly tuned in to witness. This is the first of many deliberate choices that turn Blonde into something truly special, transcending beyond the typical biopic fare. 

Living alone with her mother, we see a young child holding her stuffed animal tight as she wonders where her father might be. While her mother continues to spin stories to the child, even going so far as bringing the young girl into a blazing forest fire raging through the night, the first inkling of tragedy begins to unfold. With Hollywood on fire, Dominik follows his subject matter into an ethereal nightmare covered in ash. Even from a young child, the filmmaker makes it abundantly clear that Monroe deserved far more than the hand she was dealt in life. Yet in another juxtaposing manner, Dominik captures a reflective Monroe looking back on her childhood, and specifically her mother, fondly. The whole time, there are glimpses of the blatant abuse she endured under the hand of her mother, yet de Armas pulls off a feat of magic within this scene. Her eyes and smile are able to hide the pain of the memories literally bursting onto the screen, yet there is just enough to see through the facade and have the audience absorb that raw vulnerability. It’s in moments like these where Blonde elevates itself to new heights, even if at times it may feel unnecessarily cruel.

The question will be brought up in discussion on whether or not a film such as this is exploitative. Sure, Dominik is pointing a finger at the system that built, and subsequently broke, Monroe. But if he’s doing it though that same system, what’s the difference? Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, both Oates and Dominik describe their work as fiction rather than a work of biography. And while creative license is something that is certainly understandable within any form of storytelling, it’s difficult to separate some of the more troubling aspects of the film from its director. When discussing the nature of Blonde, Dominik stated, “People may find it provocative, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to relate to someone else’s life experiences in an authentic way.” Putting intentions aside, at a few points in this film, it would appear that Dominik may have let his own creative contemplations and beliefs run a bit wilder than necessary. What begins and ends as a film highlighting the injustices and cruel treatment of Monroe hits a stagnant point around midway, and even brings into question whether or not Dominik was the right choice to helm the film. 

Within his career, his past two narrative films are known for their criticisms surrounding America and the fascination society has with building up icons. For somebody who made such a contemplative film as The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, it’s incredibly difficult to grapple with just how oversimplified Dominik portrays Monroe during the second act of Blonde. One can’t help but think that even if this has been a passion project for the filmmaker and was created with the best of intentions, he does not have the necessary perspective to make this film; or at the very least, fill a solid 35 minutes of the runtime with the decisions he made. While Oates described this film as a “feminist interpretation… of a painfully honest being, an exposed soul”, it feels inherently messy and dangerous in how the film goes about this exposure to the world.

By the end of the film, Blonde descends into a fully surrealist nightmare. Warped faces are sped up into oblivion, as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score transport the viewer to what feels like damnation, or at the very least, purgatory. The stark black-and-white imagery begins collapsing in on itself as Monroe becomes more weary and carted from movie sets to presidential suites, and everywhere in between. Director of Photography Chayse Irvin described the vast amount of stylistic approaches as “being produced quite chaotic intentionally.” It’s a literal descent through madness, brought on by a system and society that builds up individuals only to spit them out the other side.

Grade: B-

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